Leader, Arizona-based cult members charged with child sex crimes
PHOENIX — Grim new details have emerged from a new 53-count federal indictment against an Arizona-based polygamous fundamentalist cult and its leader, Samuel Bateman.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona is now charging Bateman, the self-proclaimed prophet of a splinter group from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and 10 others with sexually abusing nine girls whose ages ranged from 9 to 17 at the time the alleged offenses took place.
Federal prosecutors filed the detailed indictment on May 18, replacing a more limited indictment against Bateman and three supporters. The latest court documents, naming 11 defendants, show that the scope of the case has widened and the allegations have become more serious.
The new charges are based, in part, on Bateman’s own writings and remarks by some of the girls, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona. The new indictment revealed stories of Bateman forcing little girls to have sex with him and other adults, trading nights with girls for luxury Bentley cars, coercing children into acts group sex broadcast live and transporting girls across state lines for the sex trade.
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Bateman had been charged in December, along with Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Johnson, all of whom Bateman claimed to be his wives.
The four men were originally charged with kidnapping and destroying evidence as part of a federal investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed affidavits describing the sexual coercion, but did not press charges against them.
Josephine Barlow Bistline, LaDell Bistline Jr., Brenda Barlow, Marona Johnson, Torrance Bistline, Leia Bistline and Leilani Bistline were added to the indictment on May 18. They are all relatives, followers and others whom Bateman has claimed as wives.
The 11 co-defendants face an assortment of charges ranging from producing child pornography to transporting children for sexual purposes.
Who is Samuel Bateman?
He is 47 years old and leads an FLDS cult in Colorado City, Arizona. Beyond that, we still don’t know much about him. He calls himself a prophet, according to residents of Colorado City and Hilldale, Utah.
What happened in Colorado City, Arizona?
On August 28, Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers saw a stopped GMC Denali on Interstate 40. They noticed a child’s hand sticking out of a towed trailer, then arrested Bateman. He was incarcerated in a Coconino County jail on suspicion of child endangerment, but returned home.
Why is the FBI involved?
Federal agents began to suspect Bateman was deleting records from a cellphone app during and after his arrest and communicating with supporters in Colorado City while he was in jail. On September 13, officers searched her home there. On September 15, he appeared in federal court on new federal charges relating to interference in the destruction of documents.
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Manifest Acts, Sex and Bentley
Last week’s indictment listed “overt acts” in a detailed timeline, beginning in 2019 when Bateman declared himself a prophet and ending with his arrest by federal agents in the fall of 2022.
The “acts” alleged in the court documents described times when Bateman took young girls for himself by convincing them and their parents that God had commanded them to marry. The ceremony was often the first time the girls had to have sex with him – which some girls admitted to fearing, according to the indictment.
By the time law enforcement caught up with him, he had claimed that 10 women and 10 underage girls were God-given brides. The identity of most remains unclear.
In court filings last winter, federal prosecutors hinted at some of the dire allegations they presented in the new indictment. They understand:
- Forced sexual acts.
- Transporting children for sex with other adults.
- Attempt to marry one of his minor daughters.
But the new details, some sinister, go further.
According to the latest charges, Bateman began a manipulative pattern of taking underage girls in March 2020, when he claimed a vision from God told him to take the 9-year-old daughter of a man identified only as MJ as his wife.
Reports in court records alleged that Bateman put the 9-year-old to sleep in his bed four months later.
Prosecutors claimed Bateman did it at least seven other times. Four other girls were taken from MJ, aged 10, 11, 13 and 14. Two others, aged 9 and 10, were taken from co-defendants LaDell Bistline and Josephine Bistline. Bateman would also take Josephine Bistline as his wife, according to the new indictment.
On at least two occasions, he alleges the girls described sexual acts with Bateman. In another account, he claimed that Bateman wrote, referring to one of the girls, that he “slept with Angel Mother tonight!”
In previous filings, LaDell Bistline was accused of being involved in group sex acts involving the girls. The new allegations describe Bateman offering one of the children for sex to LaDell Bistline in exchange for one night with Bistline’s wife.
Prosecutors noted that in October 2021, a wealthy agricultural engineer, Torrance Bistline, purchased a luxury Bentley from Bateman. Months later, according to the indictment, Bateman offered a 12-year-old girl to Torrance Bistline and watched them have sex.
Torrance Bistline would buy Bateman a second Bentley shortly after that night, prosecutors claimed.
Sitting in the Coconino County Jail following his arrest in Flagstaff, Bateman contacted Torrance Bistline and other followers to have them delete messages and documents from digital devices, prosecutors say.
According to the indictment, after Bateman was released in early September, a 15-year-old girl alleged that Bateman coerced another 15-year-old girl into having sex and forced her to watch.
When federal agents arrived Sept. 13, some of the elderly women attempted to dispose of or hide evidence, according to the indictment. One allegedly threw a backpack full of condoms and digital devices out the window.
Prosecutors have also decided to seize Bateman’s assets if he is found guilty. They are seeking to seize two homes in Colorado City that prosecutors say belonged to Bateman. They were known as the “Blue House” and the “Green House”.
For more than a year, several girls have visited the Green House. Prosecutors claimed that was where Bateman ordered them to engage in group sex acts.
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The indictment numbers each count as counts 1 through 53. Some of the defendants share the same count. The following list outlines the number and type of charges each defendant faces.
Bateman faces 51 counts in total. They include producing child pornography, traveling interstate with the intent to engage in illicit sex with a minor, and transporting a minor for the purpose of criminal sexual activity.
Donnae Barlow, Morretta Johnson and Naomi Bistline face four counts. They include kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, tampering with official process, and conspiracy to commit tampering with official process.
Josephine Barlow Bistline faces 12 counts. They include producing child pornography, transferring obscene material to a minor, and transporting a minor for the purpose of criminal sexual activity.
LaDell Bistline faces eight counts. They include receiving child pornography, transferring obscene material to a minor, and transporting a minor for the purpose of criminal sexual activity, among others.
Brenda Barlow faces 11 counts. They include transferring obscene material to a minor, transporting a minor for criminal sexual activity, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
Marona Johnson is facing one count of transferring obscene material to a minor.
Leia Bistline faces two counts of using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity.
Torrance Bistline faces five counts. They include using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity and four other counts related to tampering with evidence.
Leilani Bistline faces three counts, including using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, transporting a minor for criminal sexual activity, and persuading or being forced to travel to engage in sexual activity.
Bateman is due in court Friday in Phoenix.
Contact crime reporter Miguel Torres at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TheMiguelTorres.